This is not an article about how to measure dark social in 2018. (There are a ton of articles about that, and lots of services and approaches that can help brands better understand where their traffic and conversions are coming from. This could be a good place to start if that's your jam.)
This is an article that strives to help communicators and marketers see dark social as a creative, unique channel— not a barrier that needs to be overcome.
But first, some context.
One day I hope to coin a term like dark social. How cool would it be for every article about something began with a reference to me and my interesting term? Very cool. However, in this case, it was a very cool former deputy editor of The Atlantic, Alex Madrigal, who came up with it way back in 2012 to describe social sharing through private channels like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, email, and text.
A study from RadiumOne says it accounts for 84% of outbound sharing, meaning a lot of your web traffic is coming from the ''dark''.
That's a lot.
OK, but you said this wasn’t about measurement. What gives?
I know a lot about measuring the success of campaigns, and why it's so important to my clients and projects. But, I leave the actual data analysis to my very capable colleagues, who can really dig into information and give me the amazing insights to work with.
From my perspective, as a writer and creative strategist, understanding dark social can still make a really big difference to what I do. Because knowing that most people are sharing links, ideas, products, and stories privately should drive more interesting ideas and creative solutions.
In a few different ways:
Remember, people are people. Whether they're doing things online or off. How we behave online does mimic how people behave in real life—the kind of image you curate on Instagram, a public/professional channel, is very different from the person you share with your friends on Snapchat. Just like how we show up to a job interview is different than how we show up to our best friend's birthday party.
So, if what people share on private channels is different than what they'll share publicly, then the kind of shareable content brands create should reflect that. Brands can make content exclusively for private channels that is a little riskier or bolder in tone for example. That's not to say go completely sideways from public material, because as we all know, anything private could be public these days. But there's more opportunity on dark social for brands to have a personality and show a different side of themselves, since that's how actual humans behave too.
Exclusivity trumps inclusivity. I don't usually subscribe to exclusionary tactics. But there can be a place for it with dark social. Brands can use the opportunity to give certain audiences an inside look, a sneak peek, or something special before anyone else, to create a sense of excitement, and reinforce a sense of belonging. Or essentially, building tribes—the latest hip term for personas in our marketing world.
A great example of this is in action is Adidas, and their Tango Squads, which I've referenced before in terms of influencer marketing. It's a great example of a brand taking a big risk—at the outset, they really couldn't measure the impact of their effort. They relied on the fact that young people with influence would share content on their behalf with other young people, and that would drive shares. But the correlation was essentially impossible to prove because teens were sharing information via private messaging, text, and probably (gasp!), sometimes plain 'ole face-to-face conversation.
Adidas built a tribe of like-minded, connected followers eager for more inside information. To feel exclusive and cared for. And Adidas is being recognized for it.
Honesty is currency. Transparency is not optional in today's business landscape. Brands who try to avoid or distort the truth are raked over the coals in the public sphere. (I'm sure we can all remember Volkswagen's 2015 emissions debacle, which they're still recovering from years later.)
Today, truth is better than spin, even if that truth is a little ugly. And people recognize the brands that adhere to the principles of honesty as more credible—it's expected from leadership more and more. Respondents to the Leger/NATIONAL Public Relations 2018 Corporate Reputation Study ranked service as a number one factor in determining a brand's reputation - and number two is trust and transparency.
And the perfect forum for truth from brands? Dark social. It can be a really good place to test ideas or messages with audiences, gauge their reaction to something that isn't perfect yet. Bring your audience along with you as you finesse something, whether it's a product or a process.
When an organization is launching a campaign or new communications effort, it can be easy to take content and reuse it across multiple channels. That's not wrong. But dark social, the opportunity to be more one-on-one with your audiences, gives brands new opportunities to take some creative risks.
A final thought
One thing I haven't touched on is actually putting some of these ideas into practice. Making dark social initiative successful requires a team structure to support it—if you're building individual or more personal relationships with your audiences, that means that their expectations of your brand or organization will shift, and you may need more training or different skill sets to support that shift. You'll need the people power to make sure you can engage these audiences quickly. You'll need a trusted team to lead these conversations. And you'll need the confidence to let go of the reins and believe in the people behind their keyboards, representing you.
Community management is important on public social channels. It's even more important when it comes to dark social. And trust isn't built overnight. Internally or externally.
But the risks can be worth it.
One of the things I see organizations struggle with is actually remembering that they, like their audiences, are human too. People can spot insincerity, obfuscation, and old-fashioned thinking a mile away.
With the right team and approach, dark social can help organizations break from what they've always done, in a sphere that actually encourages and expects it.
To dig into dark social and how to make it work for you, get in touch with one of NATIONAL's social media experts.
——— Ellie Bramah is a former Director of Creative Strategy at NATIONAL Public Relations